by Vicki Wrona, PMP

We are all familiar with brainstorming, but its impact is often quite limited due to a number of factors discussed earlier. But have you heard of reverse brainstorming? It is a simple technique which can generate truly new ideas as well as ideas that have a better chance to last and have a greater positive impact.

With brainstorming, you present a problem at a meeting and expect everyone to come up with ideas on the spot on how to solve it. Rarely is creativity available on demand. You will get ideas, but they may not be optimal and tend to be similar to ideas from discussions already held.

With reverse brainstorming, you ask your team to bring any ideas that struck them over the time period since your last meeting. For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that you hold weekly meetings with your team. You should provide notice to your team that you will be asking for this so they can (hopefully) keep a running list of ideas as they appear throughout the week. It is a different way of thinking than they are familiar with and may take some getting used to. Keeping a running list of ideas allows those ideas not to be forgotten or lost. This list is not designed to produce MANY ideas but rather QUALITY ideas. Using a list, separate ideas are kept in the forefront of your mind and may possibly be combined with other, seemingly disparate ideas to create one new, better idea.

At the next team meeting, anyone with an idea explains their idea as best they can, including how they developed and formed the idea. In other words, they would describe the ideas or concepts they combined to reach this idea. Then instead of judging the merits of this idea on the spot, everyone can then think about it over the next week. Giving your team time to digest and mull over the idea, to go back to the person to ask questions, and to talk it over with others, allows those ideas to percolate and grow. At the next meeting, those ideas with merit will hopefully come out and can be further explored. The first idea may morph into different and new ideas, and that is fine.

What this process does is generate more thoughtful ideas, create a team culture or expectation of always looking out for better ideas or approaches, and knowing that the idea will be given a fair chance to be evaluated (vs. traditional brainstorming where ideas are quickly judged). This will result not only in better and longer-lasting ideas but also in generating ideas in areas which may not have been looked into otherwise. Lastly, it also creates a culture of continuous improvement, a good environment for a project or an organization.

Reverse brainstorming is discussed in the book Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark In Human Achievement by William Duggan, a book I highly recommend for anyone wanting to understand how great ideas and new thinking come together and can be developed. It has intriguing examples from history as well as explanations on how to apply the concepts.

Have you practiced anything like reverse brainstorming? How did it work for you?